The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 at a time when the country was under significant British influence. Since then, the movement’s supporters have been working on gaining political power and, according to their own information, are now active in around seventy countries. The exclusivist nature of the Brotherhood means it is opposed even by other Islamists, whether non-governmental organizations or states.
In Germany, organizations with links to the Brotherhood are under observation by the domestic security service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). However, the movement is not prohibited in Germany, so it has space to spread its influence through infiltration strategies or “entryism”. The Brotherhood movement believes itself to be the elite, the vanguard, and the decision-makers in a political project that will result in a future Islamic state, with the duty in the meantime to transform society from the bottom-up in an Islamic direction by commanding what is religiously right and forbidding what is wrong (al-amr bil-maruf wa-nahee an al-munkar).
In the European countries, where fewer and fewer people hold to a religious belief and religion has been relegated to the private sphere, there is a general pressure on religious currents. In trying to defy these trends, the Brotherhood has to strike a balance between two impulses: to protect its own youth from the external secular pressures, and to expand its reach so as to generate more recruits and resources. The religion-sceptic atmosphere and the attention of the BfV mean the Brotherhood has adopted a number of various strategies.
A few years ago, a document was found in possession of a high-ranking German Muslim Brother that set out a dual strategic approach for the organization. The strategy very consciously sought to deceive people by presenting one face of the organization to outsiders, essentially what their interlocuters wanted to hear, about women’s rights and other matters, while the group internally messaged about working towards its Islamist ends. This two-faced approach has had success in misleading German society about the nature of the organization and meant those who deal with it most directly are frequently the most misinformed about it.
While the Brotherhood in Germany, of course, presents its message to the society in German—it cannot win recruits if they do not understand the language—it formulates this external message very carefully, and this public message can differ quite sharply from the internal message to its members and leaders. Crucially, the internal messaging is often done in Arabic or Turkish, and this provides the Brotherhood two additional advantages. First, there are relatively few speakers of these languages, even in the governmental intelligence apparatus, so detecting these messages, the powerful surveillance capabilities of modern states notwithstanding, is quite difficult. Second, if or when an offending document or speech is discovered, the Brotherhood can claim that critics are mistranslating or misinterpreting it; in circumstances where most of the public will not follow the story closely, this is often enough for public vindication.
The Use of Social Media
Some Brotherhood organizations have two profiles in social media, which are aimed at different target groups in terms of language and content. On the one hand, they have an account aimed at the majority society, where the themes are anti-racism, environmental protection, and similar liberal and popular causes. Beyond notifications about prayer times, there will be little concrete evidence of religious content on these accounts. The purpose of such accounts is to portray the Brotherhood group as a discriminated-against minority, despite their Islamist orientation. On the other hand, the social media pages for the Brotherhood’s core community are very religious; you can find invitations to talks by preachers and other Islamist speakers, content from foreign Brotherhood affiliates like the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR) run by the influential Egyptian Brotherhood cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and the sayings and stories of the founder of Islam.
While the Brotherhood’s goals remain largely unchanged since its founding, in recent years it has adopted the methods of modern marketing to shift perceptions about the organization with Western public opinion. The increasing number of warnings from the BfV about Brotherhood infiltration efforts are a hindrance to the Brotherhood rebrand and to some extent the legal challenges based on this BfV evidence, though the success rate there is rather moderate. To blunt this impact, the Brotherhood is taking countermeasures. For example, intensive work is being done by the Brotherhood to make the expertise of the BfV appear doubtful, and non-Brotherhood critics of the agency are used in Brotherhood propaganda as witnesses.
The Brotherhood also invites high-ranking politicians and other public figures to their events; this again is aimed at two audiences. Towards the majority-society, the Brotherhood’s ability to associate itself with esteemed figures suggests that it is harmless or even good, a counter-image to that presented by the BfV. And the Brotherhood’s own audience and the wider Islamist milieu sees these associations as evidence of the group’s importance: if the group can be received by the Federal President, then they have come to a position of power. Moreover, this also spreads the message that group’s do not have to change their anti-constitutional attitudes and goals in order to gain social and political acceptance. In terms of public perception, a picture of a Brotherhood leader with the Federal President is worth more than information contained in the little-noticed reports of the BfV: the prevailing opinion is that the Federal President would not meet with dodgy fellows.
Formation of Umbrella Organizations
Brotherhood associations are often difficult for politicians to see in Germany, and even when they are noticed the primary interest of politicians is to keep this from the public to avoid reputational damage, rather than expose Brotherhood entryism. One standard method by which Brotherhood officials disguise themselves is by the foundation of umbrella organizations. These are composed as broadly as possible and include Islamic associations of other orientations, such as Sufis and Salafists. Within such conglomerates, the Muslim Brotherhood functionaries often take control of key management functions, particularly interface roles with the political system and the media. Given the benefits to politicians of associating with Muslim organizations—to demonstrate their alleged cosmopolitanism and egalitarianism—the Brotherhood-dominated umbrella groups have a reasonably easy time being accepted as in some way representatives of all Muslims. Examples of such formations are the former Hessian German-Islamic Association (DIV) and the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD).
The DIV received project money from the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs from its “Demokratie leben!” project, of all things, without local intelligence being asked. After it became public (including through this author) that the DIV was engaged with Muslim Brotherhood organizations and Salafist groups, the funding was stopped. The whole association came under surveillance in 2016 and has since disbanded.
The DIV was a member of the ZMD, specifically its regional sub-organization, ZMD Landesverband Hessen (ZMD LV Hessen), and indeed there was a significant direct overlap in membership between ZMD LV Hessen and DIV. Again, information is difficult to get at because the Brotherhod operatives go to such lengths to cover-up their affiliations and associations. It is clear that two functionaries in the ZMD federal board as of February 2021 (this is according to the ZMD’s own information) were functionaries of the DIV. In 2016, the chairman of the ZMD, Aiman Mazyek, announced that he would “examine” the allegations. After that, it was never mentioned again, and the two functionaries remain in place, despite the fact that, according to the logic of the ZMD’s statutes, the dissolution of their prior organization means they can no longer be members.
The ZMD as a whole is a broad tent. However, it is dominated and directed by functionaries who belong to or are close to the Islamic Center Aachen (IZA). The IZA can be categorized as an affiliate of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The ZMD’s first chairman was Nadeem Elyas for many years. Elyas was linked to Saudi influence in his person and to Syrian influence through IZA. One of Elyas’ main projects was working to integrate Islamist networks into interfaith dialogues with churches and through them to gain access to politicians. The Syrian Brotherhood in general can be seen as the most successful branch of the organization in Germany. While the organizations of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are increasingly being explicitly ostracized by the BfV, the Syrian branch is expanding its influence, creating a compartmentalized cell-like structure across the country that has penetrated various other organizations.
The formation of more and more umbrella organizations and networks had facilitated access to public funds. The chairman of the ZMD, Aiman Mazyek, a functionary of the IZA, said in an interview with the Hessischer Rundfunk in 2014 that Muslim youth work had to be “professionalized” and asked for government help with this. Politicians did not respond to immediately these demands, but they did later—and covertly. Under the guise of Muslim empowerment and participation, youth projects with an identity-oriented program are increasingly being promoted. In theory, these activities are open to participation of all young people, but the prioritizing of Muslim identity skews participation severely. In this way, through government payments to non-governmental Islamist mosque communities, the state is promoting separatism among Muslim youth.
Much of this only became possible because a claim was made about the need for equal treatment of Muslim and Christian church projects—often supported by the churches themselves. A petition by two Islamic associations to be recognized as religious communities under German law are still pending after several years, but the churches have built Muslim Brotherhood actors into partners in politics and have taken their side against the BfV. Particular mention should be made of Jürgen Miksch, a former Protestant church official, whose persistent networking and mentoring of actors like Nadeem Elyas opened doors that to this day have ensured the Islamist agenda is promoted in public life.
Ever Larger Conglomerates
Two of the above-mentioned strategies—umbrella organizations and the relationships with the churches—have come together for the Muslim Brotherhood in Germany to allow them to advance their program in a more effective way. In practical terms, what it has meant is the Brotherhood and other Islamists being integrated into ever-broader social structures, and this has been abetted by church groups that form political alliances with the Brotherhood groups, under the guise of anti-racism and anti-discrimination policies. The end result is that Islamist organizations get to posture as victims, rather than purveyors, of discrimination and racism; these groups get to pretend to be simply organizations representing regular Muslims and migrants; and any criticism of the Islamists is attacked as “anti-Muslim racism”, “Islamophobia”, and xenophobia.
More and More Public Money
In turn, these larger and larger umbrella organizations and the alliances with church and other civil society organizations bring increasing amounts of public funds under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood. The ironies are manifold. For instance, while the Brotherhood is integrating into ever-broader alliances, and these alliances give it access to more and more state funding, the Brotherhood uses this money to advocate against integration into the society on the grounds that assimilation does harm to Muslims. The majority society is described as “structurally racist” and all critics of the Islamist groups are therefore dismissed as part of this discriminatory hegemony.
In recent times, as the threat perception in the West has shifted to seeing the far-Right as a growing extremist problem, these conglomerates dominated by Islamist extremists, and their church-dialogue and “anti-discrimination” project allies, have found yet another avenue to the public purse, presenting themselves as allies of the state against Right-wing extremism. In this new paradigm, where far-Right actors are often linked to Russian subversion efforts, countering Rightist extremism has become part of the “democracy promotion” agenda, and all opponents of the far-Right are taken to be pro-democracy. In short, the Muslim Brotherhood—one of the most determined enemies of liberal democratic systems—has managed to get itself accepted by a bought swathe of the state and society as one of the system’s defenders.
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